Oñate was born either in 1550 or 1552, at Zacatecas in New Spain (colonial México) to a family of Spanish-Basque colonists and silver mine owners. His father was the conquistador and silver baron Cristóbal de Oñate, a descendant of the noble house of Haro. His mother was Doña Catalina Salazar y de la Cadena who was a descendant by her maternal line of a famous Jewish converso family, the Ha-Levi's. His ancestor Cadena fought in the 1212 Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in Al-Andalus, and was the first to break through the line of defense protecting Mohammad Ben Yacub. The family was granted another coat of arms, and thereafter were known as "Cadenas".
Juan de Oñate married Isabel de Tolosa Cortés de Moctezuma, granddaughter of Hernán Cortés, the conqueror of the Triple Alliance, and the great-granddaughter of the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma Xocoyotzin.
Governship and 1598 New Mexico expedition
Texas Historical Marker for Don Juan De Onate and El Paso Del Rio Norte
In response to a bid by Juan Bautista de Lomas y Colmenares, and subsequently rejected by the King, in 1595 Philip II's Viceroy /Luis de Velasco selected Oñate from two other candidates to organize the resources of the newly acquired territory.
The agreement with Viceroy Velasco tasked Oñate with two goals; the better-known aim was to explore and colonize the unknown lands annexed into the New Kingdom of León y Castilla (present day New Mexico) and the Viceroyalty of New Spain. His second goal was to capture Capt. Francisco Leyva de Bonilla (a traitor to the crown known to be in the region) as he already was transporting other criminals. His stated objective otherwise was to spread Catholicism by establishing new missions in Nuevo México. Oñate is credited with founding the Province of Santa Fe de Nuevo México, and was the province's first colonial governor, acting from 1598 to 1610. He held his colonial government at Ohkay Owingeh, and renamed the pueblo there 'San Juan de los Caballeros'.
In late 1595, the Viceroy de Zúñiga, followed his predecessor's advice and in the summer of 1596 delayed Oñate's expedition in order to review the terms of the original agreement signed, before the previous Viceroy had left office. In March 1598, Oñate's expedition moved out and forded the Rio Grande (Río del Norte) south of present-day El Paso and Ciudad Juárez in late April.
On the Catholic calendar day of Ascension, April 30, 1598, the exploration party assembled on the south bank of the Rio Grande. In an Ascension Day ceremony, Oñate led the party in prayer, as he claimed all of the territory across the river for the Spanish Empire. Oñate's original terms would have make this land a separate viceroyalty to the crown in New Spain; this move failed to stand after de Zúñiga reviewed the agreement.
All summer, Oñate's expedition party followed the middle Rio Grande Valley to present day northern New Mexico, where he engaged with Pueblo Indians. Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá, a captain of the expedition, chronicled Oñate's conquest of New Mexico's indigenous peoples in his epic Historia de la Nueva México, published in 1610.
In October 1598, a skirmish erupted when a squad of Oñate's men demanded supplies from the Acoma Pueblo, although the Acoma themselves needed their stored food to survive the coming winter. The Acoma resisted and 11 Spaniards were killed, including Oñate's nephew, Juan de Zaldívar.
In January 1599, Oñate condemned the conflict as an uprising and ordered the pueblo destroyed, a mandate carried out by Juan de Zaldívar's brother, Vicente de Zaldívar, in an offensive known as the Acoma Massacre. An estimated 800-1000 Acoma died in the siege of the pueblo, and the 500 survivors were put on trial and sentenced by Oñate. All men and women older than 12 were enslaved for 20 years. In addition, men older than 25 (24 individuals) had one foot amputated.
Great Plains Expedition
In 1601, Oñate undertook a large expedition east to the Great Plains region of central North America. The expedition party included 130 Spanish soldiers and twelve Franciscan priests - similar to the expedition of the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire - and a retinue of 130 Indian soldiers and servants. The expedition possessed 350 horses and mules. Oñate journeyed across the plains eastward from New Mexico in a renewed search for Quivira, the fabled "city of gold." As had the earlier Coronado Expedition in the 1540s, Oñate encountered Apaches in the Texas Panhandle region.
Oñate proceeded eastward, following the Canadian River into the modern state of Oklahoma. Leaving the river behind in a sandy area where his ox carts could not pass, he went across country, and the land became greener, with more water and groves of Black walnut (Juglans nigra) and bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) trees.
- Escanjaque people
Jusepe probably led the Oñate party on the same route he had taken on the Umana and Leyba expedition six years earlier. They found an encampment of native people that Oñate called the Escanjaques. He estimated the population at more than 5,000 living in 600 houses. The Escanjaques lived in round houses as large as 90 feet (27 m) in diameter and covered with tanned buffalo robes. They were hunters, according to Oñate, depending upon the buffalo for their subsistence and planting no crops.
The Escanjaques told Oñate that a large settlement of their enemies, the Rayado Indians, was located only about twenty miles away in a region called Etzanoa. It seems possible that the Escanjaques had gathered together in large numbers either out of fear of the Rayados or to undertake a war against them. They attempted to enlist the assistance of the Spanish and their firearms, alleging that the Rayados were responsible for the deaths of Humana and Leyva a few years before.
The Escanjaques guided Oñate to a large river a few miles away and he became the first European to describe the tallgrass prairie. He spoke of fertile land, much better than that through which he had previously passed, and pastures "so good that in many places the grass was high enough to conceal a horse." He found and tasted a fruit of good flavor, possibly the pawpaw.
- Rayado people
Near the river, Oñate's expedition party and their numerous Escanjaque guides saw three or four hundred Rayados on a hill. The Rayados advanced, throwing dirt into the air as a sign that they were ready for war. Oñate quickly indicated that he did not wish to fight and made peace with this group of Rayados, who proved to be friendly and generous. Oñate liked the Rayados more than he did the Escanjaques. They were "united, peaceful, and settled." They showed deference to their chief, named Caratax, whom Oñate detained as a guide and hostage, although "treating him well."
Caratax led Oñate and the Escanjaques across the river to a settlement on the eastern bank, one or two miles from the river. The settlement was deserted, the inhabitants having fled. It contained "about twelve hundred houses, all established along the bank of another good-sized river which flowed into the large one [the Arkansas].... the settlement of the Rayados seemed typical of those seen by Coronado in Quivira in the 1540s. The homesteads were dispersed; the houses round, thatched with grass, large enough to sleep ten persons each, and surrounded by large granaries to store the corn, beans, and squash they grew in their fields." With difficulty Oñate restrained the Escanjaques from looting the town and sent them home.
The next day the Oñate expedition proceeded onward for another eight miles through heavily populated territory, although without seeing many Rayados. At this point, the Spaniards' courage deserted them. There were obviously many Rayados nearby and soon Oñate's men were warned that the Rayados were assembling an army. Discretion seemed the better part of valor. Oñate estimated that three hundred Spanish soldiers would be needed to confront the Rayados, and he turned his soldiers around to return to New Mexico.
Return to Nuevo México
Oñate had worried about the Rayados hurting or attacking his expedition party, but it was instead the Escanjaques who repelled his men on their return to New Mexico. Oñate described a pitched battle with 1,500 Escanjaques, probably an exaggeration, but many Spaniards were wounded and many natives killed. After more than two hours of fighting, Oñate himself retired from the battlefield. The hostage Rayado chief Caratax was freed by a raid on Oñate and Oñate freed several women captives, but he retained several boys at the request of the Spanish priests for instruction in the Catholic faith. The attack may have arisen from Oñate's kidnapping of Caratax and the women and children.
Oñate and his men returned to San Juan de los Caballeros, arriving there on November 24, 1601 without any further incidents of note.
The path of Oñate's expedition and the identity of the Escanjaques and the Rayados are much debated. Most authorities believe his route led down the Canadian River from Texas to Oklahoma, cross-country to the Salt Fork, where he found the Escanjaque encampment, and then to the Arkansas River and its tributary, the Walnut River at Arkansas City, Kansas where the Rayado settlement was located. Archaeological evidence favors the Walnut River site. A minority view would be that the Escanjaque encampment was on the Ninnescah River and the Rayado village was on the site of present-day Wichita, Kansas.
Authorities have speculated that the Escanjaques were Apache, Tonkawa, Jumano, Quapaw, Kaw, or other tribes. Most likely they were Caddoan and spoke a Wichita dialect. We can be virtually certain that the Rayados were Caddoan Wichitas. Their grass houses, dispersed mode of settlement, a chief named Catarax (Caddi was a Wichita title for a chief), the description of their granaries, and their location all are in accord with Coronado's earlier description of the Quivirans. However, they were probably not the same people Coronado met. Coronado found Quivira 120 miles north of Oñate's Rayados. The Rayados spoke of large settlements called
Tancoa — perhaps the real name of Quivira — in an area to the north. Thus, the Rayados were related culturally and linguistically to the Quivirans but not part of the same political entity. The Wichita at this time were not unified, but rather a large number of related tribes scattered over most of Kansas and Oklahoma, so it is not implausible that the Rayados and Escanjaques spoke the same language, but were nevertheless enemies.
Colorado River Expedition
Oñate's last major expedition went to the west, from New Mexico to the lower valley of the Colorado River. The party of about three dozen men set out from the Rio Grande valley in October 1604. They traveled by way of Zuñi, the Hopi pueblos, and the Bill Williams River to the Colorado River, and descended that river to its mouth in the Gulf of California in January 1605, before returning along the same route to New Mexico. The evident purpose of the expedition was to locate a port by which New Mexico could be supplied, as an alternative to the laborious overland route from New Spain.
The expedition to the lower Colorado River was important as the only recorded European incursion into that region between the expeditions of Hernando de Alarcón and Melchior Díaz in 1540, and the visits of Eusebio Francisco Kino beginning in 1701. The explorers did not see evidence of prehistoric Lake Cahuilla, which must have arisen shortly afterwards in the Salton Sink.
They mistakenly thought that the Gulf of California continued indefinitely to the northwest, giving rise to a belief that was common in the 17th century that the western coasts of an Island of California were what was seen by sailing expeditions in the Pacific.
Native groups observed living on the lower Colorado River, were, from north to south, the Amacava (Mohave),
Bahacecha, Osera (Pima), at the confluence of the Gila River with the Colorado, in a location later occupied by the Quechan, Alebdoma.
Seen by Oñate below the Gila junction but subsequently reported upstream from there, in the area where Oñate had encountered the
Coguana, or Kahwans, Agalle, and Agalecquamaya, or
Halyikwamai, and the Cocopah.
Concerning areas that the explorers had not observed directly, they gave fantastic reports about races of human monsters and areas said to be rich in gold, silver, and pearls.